When Madeline Cash, Anika Jade Levy, and Nat Ruiz arrive at 169 Bar on a Sunday evening, Cash is nearly keeling over from carrying a corrugated plastic USPS box filled to the brim with 500 magazines and Pocket Bibles encased in silver bubble wrap ready to be mailed across the country. As we discuss the merits and drawbacks of 169 Bar’s Aperol spritz (it does the trick, we conclude), a group of girls in mismatched chairs perk up from their Tecates like meerkats and ask what we’re all doing there.
“They made their own magazine?” the girls ask incredulously. “That’s so cool…”
The cult of Forever is evident from the hundreds of DMs and emails Cash, Levy, and Ruiz receive from writers wanting their work to be published; it’s evident from the line down the block to get into the party they threw with the email newsletter Perfectly Imperfect at Baby’s All Right on a Friday night in January, two nights before our interview. It’s evident from the many writers who sing their praises, including Allie Rowbottom, Nada Alic, and Sean Thor Conroe.
Forever is the lifeblood of a new literary scene, one that’s less for the MFA-pedigreed, where self-aggrandized, sober readings end by 8 pm and one that’s more for girls who accidentally drink too much Robitussin or are apt to lose a fingernail in a bag of ketamine (which happened to Levy in Issue 4), or who are more concerned with style over plot. It’s for people who want to go to a book party that’s actually fun, at places like TV Eye or the Georgia Room, or KGB Bar. It’s a magazine for people with something to say, whether it’s Sheila Heti, Tao Lin, Anna Dorn, or an otherwise unpublished dog nurse living in the south of England – which is to say, it’s for everyone. At the heart of Forever is the infectious, DIY drive of Cash, Levy, and Ruiz: three best friends whose hearts beat to the tune of dial-up internet.
While some literary magazines rely on looking serious in order to be taken seriously, the idea of play is essential to Forever. The high, low formula is tried and true – but Forever in particular forgoes the minimalist, scholarly look of literary magazines like The Drift or The Paris Review for something that looks like if a Geocities page, hand-done early aughts zines, and an I Spy book collaged a bedroom wall.
“I think there is something to what we're doing that kind of exists in a liminal space between the internet and the formality of printed legacy magazines,” says Levy, who edits Forever, along with Cash. “We're printing out the internet,” she says, referring to a heyday of self-mythologizing online literary magazines like Muumuu House and HTML Giant.
Issue 4 – titled Lost&Found – for example, weighs the size of a guinea pig and is filled with pages that demand your attention, not unlike a choose-your-own-adventure, except the adventure is finding Ruiz’s lost heart-shaped Polly Pocket house or Allie Rowbottom’s press-on nail amidst the magazine’s pages. There’s Jokerman font on the cover, for God’s sake. You have to physically turn the magazine to read some of its poems. Editors’ notes contain first and second person writing. It’s not that there’s no formality, it’s that sometimes the magazine decides to roll its eyes at it.
“You don't want to look formal, or institutionalized in anything that we're doing. Because the moment that you do that you're so detached from the readers,” says Ruiz, Forever’s Creative Director. “It's weird because people basically call us ‘twee’ because we're not copying them and they're all just copying this look of being serious. Why is it serious or respectable to look this way?”
“We have nothing to gain by posing as an institution,” Levy says. “I think a lot of newer magazines think that by being self-serious in their presentation, they'll somehow garner respect, and they won't, they're not going to respect you no matter what you do. So you might as well have total clarity of vision.”
“We're so literally not an institution. We're not even an LLC right now,” Cash says. “All of our magazines are under this table.”
The lack of capital-I institutional backing is part of the draw of Forever. Cash, Ruiz, and Levy have jobs, not investors. They don’t get money from their families. They’re also not not looking for investors, as well as boyfriends. (“That said,” Cash says. “If anyone can get the new issue to Kendall Jenner, by all means.” ) They had every reason in the world not to make a print literary magazine in 2023 happen – but they did.
Forever was born when Cash threw a reading at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in 2020, which “blew up,” she says. One of the things Cash was interested in early on was helping writers who had written for indie publisher New York Tyrant find a home, which became more pressing in the wake of the death of the founder Giancarlo DiTrapano in 2021. Levy, meanwhile, moved to New York in the middle of what she described as a “desolate literary landscape” and met Sean Thor Conroe as his novel Fuccboi was coming out; Forever hosted his book party at punk watering hole TV Eye in Ridgewood, Queens.
“It felt like there was all of this energy with nowhere for it to go,” Levy says. “Madeline got this piece of advice really early on from Asher Penn who edits Sex Mag, who said, ‘Identify cultural need and then meet it.’”
They figured it was time to put together a proper issue, which is where Ruiz came in. (Cash convinced her to join Forever as Creative Director over oysters and martinis.) Cash, meanwhile, DMed writers and artists she admired.
“A lot of our strategy early on was Madeline snorting redacted substances and then literally going on Instagram and DM-ing a hundred people,” says Levy.
(For what it's worth, Cash is exceptionally good at email. In our correspondence, she sends landscapes of punctuation that create tiny, gorgeous tableaus of text that are never a chore to open. She’s even “nonconsensual pen pals” with George Saunders, who said she was “really funny” but unfortunately declined to blurb her forthcoming book Earth Angel, out on CLASH Press in March.)
For Issue 2, Forever threw a reading at KGB bar where they wanted to see who the craziest writers they could get were. Nico Walker had just been released from federal prison; Cash emailed his parole officer asking for permission for Walker to come to New York. But despite the renowned writers who have contributed to the magazine, Cash, Levy, and Ruiz aren’t in the business of chasing clout: They’re more interested in redistributing it.
“[B]igger commercial names certainly laundered a lot of credibility to us,” says Levy. “But the other thing that they did was they elevated those smaller unknown writers and artists in the issue to a similar stature. They're now being published in legacy magazines. We can get this very mainstream author or artist to do this and therefore elevate all of the counterculture or outsider work in this issue,” says Levy. “I think in some ways it also reflects well on the mainstream contributor because they get this interesting counter-cultural badge.”
“I think the edgiest thing we can do right now is publish Sally Rooney and put her next to someone like Maggie Dunlap,” Cash adds.
“I think there's also something really interesting and schizophrenic about creating a collection of authors and writers whose work would never appear in one place,” Levy adds.
Forever is special because there’s a sense that anybody could have done it: Cash, Levy, and Ruiz just did. The question now becomes how to scale it without losing the energy that makes it special.
“We physically cannot scale it any farther because it is just us making no money and doing all of this ourselves. I think people can sense that and the way that people can sense that we're not risk averse, and it makes them want to be a part of it,” says Levy. “I think increasingly as institutions break apart, there's a real desire to be part of something smaller and more intimate.”
But after spending an evening with the girls, it feels unlikely they will lose any of the glue that makes it all work. Because what Forever really is, is friendship.
“I know it's not fashionable to say, but I think we've all been having kind of a feminist heel turn lately, where we're actually like, ‘Girls un-ironically run the world,’” Cash says.
“That's part of the tween-ness or the sincerity that we're getting at is, we have accomplished more as three girls combining our resources being a lot stronger than the sum of our parts,” says Levy
“All of my family is not in America,” Ruiz adds. “Literally, you guys are my family. Community has traditionally always been the biggest defense against capitalism.”
It feels similarly unfashionable to talk about the Death of Print, but the truth of making work in a precarious industry is that nobody knows what will happen next. But Forever has plans: Their next issue will be the Daddy Issue. They want to throw events in the Pacific Northwest and Appalachia, where many of their readers are.
“We're in the right place at the right time. But I also feel like it was easy to helm a ship during 2020 for something you do alone, which is read,” says Cash. “I don't know what's going to happen next. I mean, with everything folding and a recession coming, and with Web 3, we're on the precipice of a new era. So we have to be ready to adapt, and it might not necessarily be one thing.”
It’s this tension of the desolate and enchanting – of enjoying where they are now and never not thinking about the inhospitable climate in which we have to make everything that is the exploding North Star guiding Forever.
“We walked outside and [Madeline] looked up and she was like, ‘It's snowing!’ really bright-eyed. I looked back at her and she was like, ‘Or no, I'm sorry. It's probably ash from a tenement fire,’” Levy says. “I feel like that's exactly what our worldview is: wanting to be really wide-eyed, but also embracing the utter cultural, institutional, and material decay.”
So if the world is ending, why not throw a reading that is a party? Why not email George Saunders about your breakup? What is there to lose?
“We have nothing to lose because we have nothing,” says Levy.
“It's not far to fall,” says Cash. “We fall, so we'll just keep getting up and doing it again and doing it differently and finding new ways to do it.”
For now, they’re just worried about things like finding a post office that’s open on the Sunday before MLK day so they can mail out their magazines, or apologizing to bookstores for not being able to restock Forever because they can’t physically carry the magazines from their apartments to the Uber.
“We were sitting in an apartment packaging stuff last night and we kept getting new orders and we were like, "Stop buying it,’” says Levy. “We–”
“Literally can't fulfill it,” Cash finishes her sentence.
What’s most important is preserving what they have.
“I feel like we're pretty inclusive,” says Levy. “I mean [we want to] keep things small, encircling something almost in a magical way being we have this thing and we are going to protect it.”
“Like those cats they genetically modified to stay kittens forever,” says Cash. Everyone laughs. “That sounds like us.”